“What Makes You Different Makes You Dangerous
Directed by Neil Burger
Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Zoë Kravitz, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller, and Kate Winslet.
Set in a dystopian future where some kind of unspecified calamity has wiped out civilisation as we know it, the few survivors huddle together in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, divided into five factions – the kindly Amity, the honest Candor, the knowledgeable Erudite, the fearless Dauntless and the selfless Abnegation. Beatrice, our heroine, is born into Abnegation, the faction who look after people, rule the city (because they think of others) and feed the factionless, who are the people who ‘don’t fit in anywhere’.
When you’re sixteen you are put through a kind of serum induced dream aptitude test, which tell you which faction you belong to, based on your personality, although apparently 95% of those who take the tests stay in their birth factions. And then once you’ve taken the test, you can make an informed decision at the big public ceremony where you chose your faction, move into their part of town, and adopt a nifty new colour coded outfit for the rest of your life.
Beatrice takes these tests with a Dauntless woman, Maggie Q, only to be woken by an upset proctor who kicks her out and tells her to never speak of this again. Apparently her test results suggest that she has more than one personality trait, and as such is ‘Divergent’ and liable to be executed if caught, because she ‘can’t be controlled’. Nevertheless, Beatrice turns up to the choosing ceremony the next day, picks the black clad, tattooed and pierced Dauntless, and goes off to learn to be one of the city’s warriors, renaming herself ‘Tris’ in the process. Meanwhile, the blue suited power dressers in Erudite are plotting to overthrow the city’s government. Will Tris save the day?
What’s wrong with it?
So, let’s start at the beginning. Tris, our heroine, appears to be magically and amazingly super special due to her magic power of having more than one personality trait. Yes. That’s all it takes in this world. Everyone else is a two dimensional cardboard cutout, but Tris is different (allegedly) because she can be more. There’s very little evidence of this, admittedly, and she comes across as being about as bland as every other Young Adult heroine out there but the script tells me firmly that she’s different and so I shall try and believe it. I shall also try and get my head around the notion that no one else has any more than a single personality trait, despite the fact that other characters regularly display a (limited) combination of traits. Tris can also, apparently, control the weird serum hallucinations she kepts getting put into which is also a side effect of being divergent so I’ll accept that as a super power.
Tris’ time in Dauntless is OK, in an entirely generic way – heroine is trained by strong brooding hero, who maintains a single constipated frown at all times to indicate hidden depths and sometimes twitches his eyebrows together a bit more when he’s getting emotional. She starts off getting beaten up but through guts, willpower, and the support of her sassy PoC friend, learns how to throw knives, shoot guns, and even captures the flag in a battle game with an ending which made me wonder if the director was a fan of Disney classic, Mulan.
The conspiracy to overthrow the government makes vague sense – as far as I can tell, Evil Kate Winslet mostly felt thwarted in her desire to rule the world so decided to brainwash a fifth of the population to kill another fifth of the population. Which I guess is reasonable if you’re a psychotic megalomaniac who probably drowns kittens in her spare time which is pretty much all the character that the script gives Kate Winslet. And, to do her credit, she really does run with it; Kate Winslet manages to pretty much add barely contained psychosis into the sentence ‘are you alright?’
The final outburst of violence progresses in a bizarrely slow motion fashion – I understood why Evil Kate Winslet wanted the brainwashed Dauntless to round up the Abnegation and shoot them all in a shocking dawn raid. What I didn’t understand was why having rounded them up, she insisted that the Dauntless spend half an hour lining them up against a wall and pointing guns menacingly at them while she faffs around getting back to her lab, thus allowing the good guys to regroup and come after her, and why she insists on a slow countdown to execute o’clock even as the good guys charge the lab is totally beyond me.
What’s right with it?
To be fair, it’s reasonably inoffensive. It’s a comfortable Young Adult dystopian action flick which ticks all the boxes of the genre, and has a generically positive message about how being different makes you strong. Visually, it’s quite pretty; I liked the image of a post-Apocalyptic Chicago, with the wind turbines on every tall building, and the massive walls around it.
How bad is it really?
It isn’t offensively bland – it’s just very very generic. It’s a Young Adult dystopia by numbers which painstakingly ticks every box going without ever coming up with anything terribly new. Spunky young heroine who’s family don’t understand her? Check! Chisel jawed and slightly intimidating hero who turns out to fancy the heroine all the time? Check! Vaguely defined powers to emphasize how special the heroine is? Check! I could go on, but it would take some time.
The acting is mediocre at best (although I do want to make special note of Kate Winslet who looks like someone told her she was playing in the Nag End Community Theatre annual panto, and clearly had an eye out for any stray Dalmatians she might find wandering the streets) and the story never ceases to follow the exact path you could have predicted from the first opening scene. The world itself is a thinly sketched post-Apocalyptic Hogwarts which actually embraces the universally acknowledged fact that Slytherin are actually the cool kids, and instead makes Ravenclaw the villains of the piece, and lets them kick the crap out of Hufflepuff.
I understand that the original book was written as a university project while Veronica Roth was studying for a degree in creative writing at Northwestern University and I can certainly see that. It looks like it was following a text book showing you ‘how to’.
Best bit (if such there is)?
I quite liked the combat mother appearing out of nowhere with a gun in hand to rescue her daughter, and revealing the fact that she’d been raised in Dauntless, but had chosen to leave to become Abnegation, a choice which immediately made her the most interesting character in the film as far as I was concerned.
What’s up with…?
- Tris’s mother explaining to her that Abnegation can only look in the mirror for a few minutes every day to discourage vanity, while Tris stands there with a full face of makeup and fresh highlights in her hair. God alone knows how that worked.
- Four’s tattoo. How did no one notice he was Divergent when he had an elaborate back tattoo showing all five factions because he identified with all of them? Was that not a give away? Did the artist at least not ask questions?
- The entire city infrastructure. As far as I can tell, there are only five jobs in the city – soldier/policeman, academic, farmer, charity worker/politician, and lawyer/honest person. How does a society function on that? Who keeps the roads mended, or the generators going? Who does the admin? And where are the accountants? Is there even an economy? Is this a communist Utopia? The film is frustratingly vague.
- The Factionless. The Dauntless training system, in particular, seems designed to turn the majority of its recruits into Factionless, who, as far as I can tell, just hang around looking depressed from then on in waiting to be fed by Abnegation. How does this not lead to social unrest if you’ve created an aimless and disenfranchised underclass which significantly outnumber the police and army?
- The rest of the world. Is there no one there? Why is everyone having to hide inside the city walls? There is no sign of there being any actual danger, and no mention of the calamity which destroyed the rest of civilisation.
- What do Dauntless actually do? I mean, apart from run around, climb high buildings and train. Do they exist just to keep the Factionless in check? There is no other obvious possible threat to this otherwise tightly controlled society and no obvious external threat, so they end up coming across as either a totalitarian police force or basically waster teenagers with an extreme sports fixation. Which seems like an awful drain on the economy.
Production values – It’s actually quite nicely put together and some of the visuals are pretty good. 5
Dialogue and performances – The dialogue could have come out of a generator. 12
Plot and execution – Not awful but very very predictable. 11
Randomness – It rarely comes too far from left field. 3
Waste of potential – It was never really going be very much more. 8